Friday, April 11, 2014

The camp guards: Men without faces

(19th in a series)
       The question came up deep into my Dad's 1996 USC Shoah Foundation interview recalling his Holocaust and concentration-camp experiences: "Did you remember any of the German guards?"
       Dad (Louis Van Thyn) was great at remembering events and places, and in many instances remembering faces and names. But not always and to this question, not at all ... at first.
       His first reply to the question: "No, I don't remember the camp guards." His explanation: [Nazi] SS guards didn't come into the camps; they didn't want to take the chance of going into the places where it was dark or in the coal mines."
       Dad had plenty of time working in the coal mines at the Auschwitz satellite camps of Jawischowitz and Janina, so he knew what he was talking about.
       But earlier in the interview, when he talked of being sent -- by mistake -- to a railroad work crew for a few days, he mentioned two guards by name: Otto and Bill. And as we shall see in a moment, one of those names returns to the conversation.
       From The SS -- short for Schutzstaffelnor -- began in 1925 as a small personal guard unit to protect Hitler and other party leaders and developed into the elite corps, the BlackShirts, under the direction of Heinrich Himller.
        In gathering information for this chapter, I read on the web site, that in the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau -- where both my parents were imprisoned for about 2 1/2 years -- the SS garrison was estimated to number 700 in 1941, 2,000 in June 1942, 3,000 in April 1944, about 3,300 men and female overseers in August 1944, and a peak number of 4,480 men and 71 female supervisors in mid-January 1945, just before the final evacuation of the camp.
         Each prisoner "block" -- my mother, for instance, was in the famed Block 10 (medical experiment) for women -- had a supervisor (blockfuhrer) and a prisoner labor detail (kommandofuhrer).
        The hierarchy, as you can imagine, came down from the leaders who made the decisions that ultimately led to the thousands/millions of Jewish prisoners (and non-Jewish, as well) sent to the gas chambers or killed by other means (shootings, hangings, beatings, etc.). 
An SS guard unit at Auschwitz (photo from
       But much of the everyday involvement with the prisoners was left to either the haftlinge -- the German criminals taken from prisons and made to oversee the concentration-camp prisoners -- or the kapos -- the trustee inmates, many of them Jewish, the Nazis used to oversee their fellow prisoners.
         I can just imagine how faceless these guards must've been to Dad and his fellow prisoners, probably just as faceless (and nameless) as the prisoners were to the guards. Remember those numbers tattooed into the prisoners' arms (Dad was 70726) were their identification.
         And again from Theodor Eicke, commandant of the Dachau concentration camp, issued instructions to SS guard units -- as early as Oct. 1, 1933 -- and "stressed the necessity of treating the prisoners harshly, as enemies of the Third Reich and the German people. Showing any kind of human impulses toward them was not only frowned upon by superiors, but also sneered at among the SS men themselves as being 'soft' and showing a 'lack of character.' ”
           No question the SS officers and guards totally bought into the Nazi Party hysteria. But you have to wonder how many of the guards dealing daily with the prisoners themselves were there because they were forced to be, had no choice but to support their country and serve in the military.
           Surely, they must've known that treating people without any shred of dignity was just plain criminal.
            So, in talking about the guards he didn't remember by name, Dad said, "We had Germans who were real bad." Apparently he felt that way about the previously mentioned Otto and Bill, who were kapos. But then he remembered a later instance.
          "Now that we were in that camp Janina, that same Bill that was in the strafcommando in Jawischowitz, he came to our camp and he recognized us, about 10 men we were there," Dad said. "And he was changed. You know, he came there in early '44, and he did everything good for us.
          "We know how bad he was in Jawischowitz, and he changed all the way. We could do everything for him, and he did everything for us."
          The interviewer asked Dad, "How come?"
          "He was thinking [that] when the war is over, that he was safe," Dad answered. "You know they killed many kapos in Auschwitz, and on the Death March, too. But they took the gentile [guards],  took all the German [guards] out of our camp in November '44 [a couple of months before the camp abandonment]."
          However, as he pointed out, that was no relief for those guards.
          "Two were volunteers in the East [the Germans' battle on that front against the advancing Russian forces]," Dad said. "They took four kapos, or block elders -- they were the leaders in our camp -- and they volunteered for the German wehrmacht (united forces). Two came back -- one with one arm and one with one leg.
          "They were free then. They guaranteed them that if they went to the East -- and we couldn't laugh," he said, laughing now at the thought.
          "When they came back [from the Eastern front], they wanted to see what [our] camp was like.
          "Later on, we had a couple that came back there, and I don't know what they did with them."
          The interviewer asked again about "Bill," about his full name.
          "His name was Bill. Second name we don't know," Dad answered. "You know we don't know the second name of the inmates."
          What happened to him?
          "I don't know," Dad answered. "I think he went back [to Germany]. You know he was a politician; he was not a criminal. You know the redshirts. We had some red ones that were real good, but the green [shirts] and black ones."
          Again, as I view Dad's interview years later, this part is vague. I assume that the redshirts were the kapos. He tried to explain what green and black shirts meant, but didn't follow through. Another assumption: Those were bad guys.
            The subject of camp guards comes up again a couple of minutes later because in 1986, Dad was contacted by the German government to testify against a Nazi officer. I have written about this previously in the blog -- almost two years ago -- and in the next chapter of this series will re-visit those pieces and Dad's recollections during his Shoah Foundation interview.


  1. From Tommy Youngblood: Fascinating stuff. Unbelievable to survive that place.

  2. From Tommy Canterbury: I find this so fascinating. My dad was in one of the first groups across the Rhine, and on to the camps. Got some pictures I will share with I if you like; he brought them from the camp. Which camp he could not remember as he was very old when I got the pics. I'd really like to know.

  3. From Jimmy Russell: Very interesting and powerful stuff. Your parents were most special people, and what they and many Jewish people endured in that time ... I saw where Tommy Canterbury responded that his father was with the first group that liberated Auschwitz. I think that was the Third Army (Patton) or the 101st Airborne. I do remember that General Troy Middleton (president of LSU in my time there) was the hero of the Battle of the Bulge (as one of Patton’s generals) There is a room in the LSU library dedicated to his war efforts; that was created after his death.